Does My Judaism Still Exist?

Steve Villano
9 min readMay 20, 2024

I am a Jew.

I speak for no other Jews but myself.

I converted to Judaism 44 years ago today, drawn to a set of beliefs not threatened, but strengthened, by rational questioning and debate; that found beauty in acts of faith and generosity, small and large; that understood, from centuries of experience, the insanity and inhumanity of exclusion and demonization; and was built on the bedrock of fundamental human decency, dignity, love and the preciousness of life.

Which is why, despite the current collapse of democracy in Israel and the careening of Israeli leadership into a fundamentalist, nationalist chasm not unlike those in history responsible for the slaughter of millions of Jews, I was shocked by the depth of hatred aimed at me for criticizing the Netanyahu government’s abandonment of the fundamental principles of Judaism and human rights.

Early last month, I wrote on an Instagram posting by Chris Cuomo of News Nation, that:

“I am a Jew. Netanyahu’s extreme Right Wing government is an attack on all of us. A fundamental tenet of Judaism is advancing humanity; the present Israeli government is setting humanity back. On Holocaust Memorial Day when we Jews say “Never Again,” we mean never against us again, nor against any other peopleincluding non-combatant Palestinians. We are not attacking Israel; we are attacking inhumanity…”

While more than 250 readers/viewers agreed with my statement (including a reminder that the IDF’s own Code of Ethics, prohibits a disproportionate response to an attack) respondents from Israel and the United States alike (some of whom may have been Bots) piled on. A sampling of some comments:

1. “Whose side are you really on?”

2. “You’re calling for the death of your own people.”

3. “Thanks for showing us what the ‘Judenrat,” did. Jew.”

4. “Sad to see a fellow Jew who is product of Hamas propaganda.”

5. “Here we go with the “as a Jew” comment.”

6. “So, you’re one of those ‘Self-Hating Jews? You’re a fraud.”

7. “Palestinians must be slaughtered. We are dealing with psychopaths.”

8. “You’re not a Jew. Villano is anything but a Jewish name. Putz.”

9. “You probably love US garbage pails like Biden & Schumer.”

10. “Why don’t you just Convert — OUT of Judaism?”

The Judaism I converted to 44 years ago, was a far different Judaism than the false faith being practiced by some Extreme Right Wing and Ultra Nationalist Jews in Israel and the United States today. It was the Judaism articulated by Israeli writer and activist Fania Oz Salzberger, daughter of the great Israeli writer Amos Oz, who writes that:

“God does not belong as a political entity telling us what to do; what to teach; where to invade.”

Menachem Begin was Israeli Prime Minister at the time I converted, and while he was more conservative than Israel’s Labour Party leaders of the previous 30 years whom I revered, he had just, 2 years earlier, been a signatory to the Camp David Accords, along with US President Jimmy Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat — an historic peace agreement which earned all three leaders the Nobel Peace Prize.

There was a flicker of hope in the air, that a nearly 30-year constant state of War between Israel and Arab nations could be taking a pause, and could, perhaps, lead to a more permanent peace in the region. Centuries old and seemingly irreconcilable differences over geography, demography, faith, ancestry and ancient rights of land ownership could be navigated if there was a willingness on each side to reach some livable accommodations with the other — and if the humanity of each side was respected.

If Menachem Begin, a leader of Israel’s armed revolutionary group for Independence the Irgun, who was labeled a “terrorist” by the British forces he fought for freedom, could shake hands with a sworn enemy of the State of Israel like Sadat, who led Egypt in the 1973 Yom Kippur War to retake the Sinai Peninsula which Israel had occupied since 1967 — anything was possible.

There was great hope in the air for peace between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors, in the Spring, of 1980. And, there was great hope in my life, that, after years of searching, I had found in Judaism, a set of ethical, humane, spiritual teachings and practices, in which I could believe, and rationally act upon.

I was a father of a five-year old son at the time when I chose Judaism as my new faith, the faith of his mother. The hierarchy of my previous faith, Catholicism, had long since turned away from me by blindly supporting the American War in Vietnam, opposing equality for women, insisting that the promise of life was more important than life itself, discriminating against individuals because of their sexuality, and refusing to accept AIDS patients into their hospitals, and hearts, because of an outdated, and inhumane, concept of “sin.”

I spent years studying other faiths, and gravitated toward Judaism because of its grounding in reality, as well as spirituality; its’ fundamental commitment to repair the world (Tikkun Olam), and its’ insistence on refusing to wallow in darkness, and always, always work toward hope and the better side of human nature.

Converting to Judaism is not done on a whim; Jews have certain requirements for those they choose to let in.

After reading an article in the late 1970’s by the great Reform Jewish leader, Rabbi Alexander Schindler (the founder of ARZA, the American Reform Zionist Association) welcoming non-Jewish spouses in interfaith marriages to become Jews, I decided it was time to accept his invitation, and begin my journey toward Judaism.

It was a decision which did not make my mother, a devout Catholic happy. In fact, when I informed my mother I was converting to Judaism, she wrote me a letter in which she expressed how “heartbroken” she was; and that the announcement of “your becoming a Jew is not something I am proud of.”

“I will never accept your decision to change your religion,” my mother wrote to me six months before my Conversion to Judaism took place, on May 20, 1980. In reality, it took years for her to become “comfortable” with my becoming a Jew.

We joined a large Reform Jewish Congregation in Albany, N.Y., and I came under the tutelage of a leading Reform Rabbi, Rabbi Martin Silverman, a disciple of Schindler’s, who guided me in my readings on Jewish history and Judaism.

Rabbi Silverman, whose wife, Phyllis, taught with mine in the Albany Public Schools, was already a remarkably courageous figure within the American Reform Jewish Community. In the late 60’s and early 70’s before the Roe v.Wade US Supreme Court decision which declared abortion to be a fundamental privacy and healthcare right of women, Rabbi Silverman had a secret compartment behind the sacred Torah Scrolls in the Chicago-area congregation he headed. In it, he kept files of illegal abortions he’d helped women obtain, as well as a list of doctors willing to perform them.

Along with many other rabbis, ministers and priests across the nation, Silverman was a member of the Clergy Consultation Services, an underground network of fearless clergy, dedicated to protecting the life of the woman, first and foremost. That was, after all, an essential teaching of Judaism — that the woman’s life was of paramount importance, and even if an abortion was necessary to protect the life of the woman, up to the moment of birth, abortion was a required medical procedure under Jewish Law, as well as in the Old Testament.

Rabbi Silverman’s daughter, Amy Cohen, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Adoption Agency Adoptions with Love, and an advocate for women’s reproductive rights, told the Jewish Journal of Greater Boston:

“If someone was pregnant and couldn’t have or didn’t want the baby, he counseled women of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds about their predicament, explained what an abortion entailed, and then he’d refer them to where they could get a safe abortion.”

Cohen described her father as a “liberal, forward-thinking person, always involved in people’s rights.”

After my guided, independent study with Rabbi Silverman, I was considered to be ready to participate in a “Conversion class” sponsored by the Capital District Board of Rabbis, with Rabbis of all denominations of Judiasm — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform — participating.

Teaching the Conversion course, was the diminutive Susie Isser, no more than five feet tall — who was trained in the law and had escaped from Austria just before the Nazis made it impossible to leave. An immigrant to the United States in the late 1930’s, Isser — a Jewish, female attorney — found the door to the American legal profession slammed shut to her, a similar story to the one recounted decades later by Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

So, for 20 years, to help support her family, the brilliant Susie Isser scrubbed floors, and taught Hebrew Sunday School, one day per week. Her son, Dr. Raymond Isser, went on to become Chair of the Judaic Studies Department at SUNY Albany, my undergraduate alma mater, where my wife and I met.

Word of Susie Isser’s passion for teaching and her commitment to a humanitarian Judaism — and to the State of Israel — spread throughout New York State’s Capital District. In her class, the Jewish spouse was required to take the six-month long conversion class along with the spouse converting to Judaism. Among our fellow students, was an Iranian Jew, and his non-Jewish spouse — both of whom had just escaped from Iran before the Ayatollah and a cabal of fundamentalists had taken over that country.

In her lessons on Jewish history, Susie Isser cried when she spoke of growing up with a Tzedakah Box, found in Jewish homes throughout Europe, being filled with pennies each day, year after year, to support the development of a homeland for Jews — with the promise of no discrimination against any faith, and legal protections and respect for all human rights. In fact, those human rights protections, became key elements of the UN Charter which created Israel in 1948.

That was the Judaism I converted to in 1980, and it’s mission to advance humanity and repair the world, while not perfect, was carried out in spirit and substance by a succession of Israeli governments, from Begin’s to Yitzak Shamir’s, to Shimon Peres’, to Yitzhak Rabin’s.

That Judaism was violently attacked with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, by an Ultra Right Wing Nationalist disciple of convicted Jewish terrorist Meir Kahane, who was himself killed by an assassin’s bullet.

That Judaism began its slow slide toward assisted suicide, with the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, for the first time in 1996, and his repeated pandering to and enabling of the poisonous growth of Ultra Nationalist & Extremist groups throughout Israel by placing them in key Israeli government positions of extraordinary power — including power over religious matters, such as questions of “Who Is A Jew?”

Many of Kahane’s ultra nationalist adherents are now, nearly 30 years later, in key Israeli government positions, including Bezalel Smotrich, the Israeli Finance Minister with oversight responsibility for the West Bank, arrested on terrorist charges in 2005 by Israel’s Shin Bet for plotting to block Israeli withdrawal from Gaza; and, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s National Security Minister, convicted multiple times for supporting terrorist organizations, and according to The New York Times investigation on Israeli extremists, published on Sunday, May 19, 2024, threatening the life of Yitzhak Rabin “ in front of TV cameras in 1995,” two weeks before Rabin was murdered.

Rabin was murdered at a Peace rally, where he was speaking on behalf of the Oslo Accords — the US brokered peace agreement in 1993 between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization — which advanced the long held US foreign policy objective of a two-state Israeli/Palestinian peace settlement.

My Judaism, like Rabin’s, is one that believes in diversity, equality, inclusion, humanity and love, and a sacred obligation to repair the world. My Zionism, like David Ben Gurion’s, Theodore Herzl’s, Amos Oz’, Susie Isser’s, and Yitzak Rabin’s is a Humanist Zionism, in which a State of Jews could only be a liberal democracy, NOT an exclusionary Nationalist Zionism.

As Fania Oz Salberger has so eloquently said:

“Ben Gurion, the child of Socialist Zionists and of old Labour, and Theodore Herzl, a liberal, BOTH believed that Arabs AND Jews had to be part of Civil Society.”

That was the fundamental premise upon which Israel was founded; that was the basis of the international agreement which created the State of Israel 75 years ago; and that was the pluralistic, humane, loving, generous and intellectually honest faith to which I converted 44 years ago this week.

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